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Inquiries are needed to determine exactly whose intelligence failed

By Gary Brown - posted Friday, 27 June 2003

There are two important Parliamentary inquiries now underway on different aspects of Australia's intelligence gathering and assessment capabilities.

One, by the Senate's Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade (FADT) committee, is into "the performance of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and other relevant agencies of the Commonwealth Government in the assessment and dissemination of threats to the security of Australians in South East Asia in the period 11 September 2001 to 12 October 2002". That is, into whether or not we could have done more to protect our citizens in Bali prior to the terrorist bombing.

The other, by the Joint Committee on ASIO, ASIS and DSD (three key agencies), is an investigation into what Australia knew, what it was told by allies and what it believed about Iraq's claimed weapons of mass destruction (WMD) programs.


The Senate inquiry is an attempt to discover whether our intelligence community or government neglected any warning signs for Bali. There was some sort of intelligence failure: no warning was ever issued. Were our people on Bali (and, indeed, the locals and other foreign visitors) needlessly exposed to danger because somebody dropped the ball?

The function of the intelligence community in toto is to collect and evaluate information and to generate advice to the government. Preventive intelligence - warning for instance of planned terrorist attacks - is especially valuable. If there were signs and our agencies missed them, those agencies must be called to account.

If, however, the agencies (or any one of them) did warn government, and government failed to act (eg, for fear that a travel "advisory" for Bali might have offended Jakarta), then it is government - the present Howard government - which must answer for the loss of 202 lives, including 88 Australians.

It will be important, therefore, that in the course of this inquiry participants and public alike draw careful distinctions. The agencies must not be allowed to unfairly shift any blame onto the government. Nor should any blame-shifting attempt by the government to pass the parcel to the agencies be tolerated. The worst outcome of all will be one where any culpability is blurred and spread, like butter on bread, between the agencies and the government, so that all are a little tarnished, but no-one actually has to answer for the Bali intelligence failure.

The WMD inquiry is important in another way altogether. We went to war, without United Nations approval, against Iraq because - so we were told - there was incontrovertible proof of active Iraqi WMD programs. Yet in the war no WMD were used, even though the regime had every incentive to do so if it could. Now, with Iraq under US occupation, no WMD have yet come to light. Where are they?

It is now clear that Iraq could not have had massive operational WMD programs. If there were huge programs with hundreds or thousands of deployed weapons, something would have come to light by now. It remains possible - though each passing day reduces the probability - that the Saddam regime still had a WMD research program of limited size.


The Australian WMD inquiry will need to be viewed in the context of similar inquiries in Britain and the US. But we must consider two possibilities.

One, that we were misled by our allies so that we would join their war. It is possible that neither the British nor the Americans had any real intelligence showing that prewar Iraq possessed WMD, but that they deceived us.

Before anybody denies that this can happen, they should note that the British did just about that to Australia in the early 1940s. Already at war with Germany, the British wanted Australia to commit the maximum force to their aid. To get us to do this, they fed us warped, excessively benign, assessments of Japanese intentions, which the Menzies government accepted. (One notable suggestion from the British Dominions Office in September 1939 was that "Japan is not only neutral, but adopting a friendly attitude towards the democratic countries"). We can also recall the fabrications associated with the Gulf of Tonkin incident, which the US exploited to escalate the Indochina war. The inquiry will need to examine this possibility.

The second possibility is that our own government has deceived us: that it knew full well that there was no real intelligence of an Iraqi WMD threat, but cynically used the issue as a pretext for joining the American war. Before anyone denies that things like that can happen, they should recall the Menzies government's fabrication of a "request" for Australian involvement in Vietnam. This "request" was in fact requested from Saigon by Canberra - it may even have been written here.

If either of these possibilities proves to be true, then the government will have a great deal to answer for before the people. It is a great pity - and a serious flaw in liberal democracies like Australia - that there are such good historical reasons for public mistrust of governments.

There are also some potential issues regarding the machinery for this inquiry. I will return to this topic in a later column if events require it.

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About the Author

Until June 2002 Gary Brown was a Defence Advisor with the Parliamentary Information and Research Service at Parliament House, Canberra, where he provided confidential advice and research at request to members and staffs of all parties and Parliamentary committees, and produced regular publications on a wide range of defence issues. Many are available at here.

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